Still Watching 

Proposed nuclear blasts stir old fears

JTruman still has the little green book he brought home from grade school in 1957, a book all the children were supposed to show their parents. All the children, that is, who lived downwind of Nevada's nuclear test site.

Entitled Atomic Tests in Nevada, the 60-page pamphlet, now weathered and stained by both time and the impassioned grip of its owner, was designed to bolster enthusiasm and reduce fear in the residents near the test site.

Today, its words are all too ironic: "You people who live near Nevada Test Site are in a very real sense active participants in the nation's atomic test program."

Now, with untold numbers of both military and civilian populations dead or dying from exposure to radiation from the tests, Truman is among those fighting for compensation for Idaho's "downwinders."

"We all have to understand that we are still 'active participants,'" Truman told a small crowd in Boise January 27 commemorating the 56th anniversary of the first nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). "If we don't do something now, when we know better, we have no one to blame but ourselves."

Truman, 55, grew up in southwestern Utah and remembers sitting on his dad's knee watching the clouds from the bomb blasts. When he was 17, he said, he developed lymphoma as a result of the fallout. He's eligible for the $50,000 compensation for those with specific cancers who lived in certain Utah counties during the tests. But he said he's refused it until Idahoans who were sickened get compensated.

"People here in Idaho and in Montana got as much fallout and sometimes more than we did," said Truman. "It's time for justice, not 'just us.' We're all downwinders."

In 2005, after emotional testimony in Boise from cancer survivors who lived in Idaho counties hard hit by nuclear radiation, the National Research Council recommended that Congress expand the populations eligible for monetary compensation. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican, introduced legislation to include Idaho in the plan, but the bill hasn't advanced in Congress.

Meanwhile, the fight for compensation finds itself confronted by renewed needs for the nation's security.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), an arm of the Department of Defense charged with protecting the United States and its allies from weapons of mass destruction, has been holding hearings on a bomb-testing proposal at the test site called "Divine Strake." On January 28 the agency was in Boise presenting its case.

The oddly named test (the juxtaposition of the words "divine" and "strake" has no larger meaning) will involve a "single, large-scale open-air explosive detonation over an existing tunnel site" at the NTS, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It's designed to gather data about the effects of a future 'bunker buster' bomb, which would target weapons of mass destruction buried underground.The explosion is not nuclear. But opponents fear that detonating 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in an area already contaminated by more than 100 above-ground nuclear tests will create a radioactive dust cloud that will rain its toxins over a wide area.

Indeed, for downwinders, the DTRA might as well stand for "Don't Throw Radiation Again."

"It's beginning all over again," said Tona Henderson of Idaho Downwinders. "These things are just as deadly as they were 50 years ago. I don't want my family to be a guinea pig."

But representatives of DTRA and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) say that fear is unfounded.

"This is a pristine area," said David Rigby of DTRA about the planned test site. "There has never been any above-ground nuclear testing that would have deposited radioactive material beyond what is naturally occurring or what is considered part of global fallout" from worldwide testing over the past five decades.

"Most of the dirt will rise up and fall in the immediate area," said Kevin Rohrer of NNSA. Rohrer said he's so confident that the test is safe, he hopes to witness it.

"I personally am actually looking forward to standing downwind during this experiment," he said.

Rohrer's and Rigby's confidence are in contrast to the views of Richard Miller, an environmental specialist who wrote Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing and The U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout. He spoke to downwinders at their event. Miller said his research indicates the proposed site could be contaminated from six different "dirty" nuclear tests conducted in the 1950s. As a result, he contends the test will cause clouds of toxic material that will travel much farther than the 60 miles the DTRA said is the maximum distance for the particulates.

"Like it or not, whatever happens at the Nevada Test Site happens in Idaho," Miller said.

Miller's presentation provoked tears from 61-year-old Eagle resident Bonnie McBrayer. McBrayer, who grew up in Utah, has been battling three different cancers--and the bills for their treatment--for the past decade. Although she attributes her illnesses to bomb blasts, she has been unable to get compensation because she didn't live in an approved county.

"I'm not planning on money anymore," she said. "I just want to stand up and fight. I'm angry."

Opponents of the project say government agencies have given conflicting information about its purpose. Initial reports suggested it was a precursor to developing new nuclear weapons, something now denied by DTRA. But anti-nuclear advocates believe that's still the purpose, because the explosion is much larger than that of a conventional weapon.

"We don't have a bomb that's 700 tons," said Jeremy Maxand of the Snake River Alliance. "There's no plane, no delivery system for something that big. What the test is really for is to see what size of a blast you'd need with a nuclear weapon to destroy an underground facility."

"It has nothing to do with that," said Rigby. "This is a scientific experiment. The idea is to understand the effect of energy on rock. We need to 'shock the rock.'" The reason that the Nevada Test Site was chosen, he said, is that its limestone tunnels replicate the geology of countries that may have buried weapons.

The local meeting almost didn't happen. Representatives from Senators Crapo's and Craig's offices pushed DTRA to include Idaho when word got out that no meetings were scheduled here.

"This is one of those things that got on our radar screen more as a result of public input than our due diligence," said Craig, who attended the event. "People added one and one together and got two. It worried them, and it worried us."

Craig is just one of several prominent Republican lawmakers expressing reservations about the proposal. But he said the Idaho delegation won't weigh in with its opinion until DTRA decides what to do. The agency says after reviewing comments, it will either issue a Finding of No Significant Impact and proceed with the test, or will request a full Environmental Impact Statement, which would involve formal hearings.

In the meantime, the downwinders' distrust of the government continues, a distrust that government officials readily admit they understand, but don't know how to combat.

"I can't tell people to believe us," said Rohrer of NNSA. "We can just present the data. Nothing is ever 100 percent."

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